This weekend, while I squeeze into a thick winter wet suit for a cold-water surf in foggy San Francisco — and while my cousin in Phoenix goes rock climbing indoors to escape 115-degree heat — hordes of Californians are smearing pink and yellow zinc oxide on noses, shoving feet into hard plastic ski boots and gliding over to the lifts at Mammoth Mountain for yet another day on the slopes. A reminder: It’s August.
After so many years of drought, this winter’s snowfall in California was insane, a biblical onslaught of atmospheric rivers sucking up the Pacific Ocean, funneling enormous volumes of water thousands of miles through freezing sky and piling up a Sierra Nevada snowpack more than 300 percent of average levels in some areas. It crushed houses, buried roads and cut off small towns. Some ski resorts had to close because they had too much snow.
That snowy abundance has lasted longer than anyone could have hoped. Two of the biggest ski resorts on Lake Tahoe were still hopping on the Fourth of July, a time of year when the mountains are usually full of wildflowers. Mammoth Mountain, 140 miles south of the lake, got a positively Alaskan 75 or so feet of snow at its summit and is only now celebrating the final day of the season.
Climate scientists have been warning us about not just global warming but also global weirding, climatic dysregulation so severe that our most familiar landscapes are suddenly unrecognizable. And don’t bother trying to get used to them in their new form, because they’re going to keep changing, at an ever-faster pace. Unpredictable change is the new status quo. On an emotional level, there’s something undeniably frightening about that — where’s it all going? — but it can also, in a rare instance like the chance to ski in the dog days of summer, bring a disorienting joy.
A friend of mine, Kelly Cashman, who worked Mammoth ski patrol for years, nearly lost her home and her business under the weight of this past winter’s snow and ice. She now runs ski patrol for the June Mountain Ski Area, adjacent to Mammoth. She spent some nights alone, with no hot water, in a motel she owns and days on the mountain, skiing high ridgelines and chucking explosives to trigger avalanches before recreational skiers could.
In San Francisco, so much rain fell that my wooden back door swelled too much to shut; my favorite Japanese restaurant, Izakaya Rintaro, flooded waist deep; and storm drains got so overloaded that sewer grates spouted geysers.
Even after the big storms stopped, as spring headed toward early summer, the weirdness kept coming, with the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego unseasonably cold and cloudy into June. That now-common feeling of dislocation hit even harder when I made a weekend visit to my cousin in Phoenix and felt sun and sky less like North America than, say, the Arabian Peninsula.
In mid-July, well after all the hot dogs and fireworks, I headed up to the Sierra and ran into so much lingering snow that the road through Yosemite National Park hadn’t yet opened for the season. I took an alternate route, 108 over Sonora Pass, and saw people parking in turnouts, carrying skis up dirt trails through trees, stepping onto sunny snow slopes and linking turns back down to ice chests full of cold drinks, then, you know, maybe going for a swim. When I finally got to Kelly’s place, the creek on her high desert property frothed in a fabulous white-and-clear torrent through sage lands sparkling with superblooming yellow mule’s ear, red paintbrush and white phlox. The big peaks, meanwhile — in the dead heat of a California summer — remained so heavily blanketed in snow that I felt I was seeing them the way Indigenous people must have during the Little Ice Age, 500 years ago.
The premise of California’s secular faith in nature is that water plus sunshine equals enlightenment. In high school I was transfixed by a description on the jacket of Bank Wright’s classic “Surfing California” of “skiing Mount Baldy in the morning and surfing Hermosa Beach in the afternoon.” That struck the teenage me as the absolute perfect way of snatching healthy peace and giddy fun from the predictable maw of adult misery.
Los Angeles would still be a piddling little town in a desert if it weren’t for Sierra snowmelt and city officials crafty enough to snooker eastern California farmers out of their water rights. California’s Central Valley wouldn’t be the fruit-and-vegetable capital of North America — or the almond-producing capital of the world — if some of that snowmelt hadn’t always run off westward, down into the San Joaquin. This entire civilization, in other words, was built on water. Nobody has a clue how California survives if all that water disappears.
So when I drove to Mammoth, put on my favorite cowboy hat against the sun and sipped iced coffee while watching tiny black figures ski down blinding white slopes, the experience was perhaps best likened to the queasy adrenalized thrill of an oncoming manic episode after a long and dark depression — worrisome, yes, bound for nowhere good but, as long as we’re just talking here and now, a deliciously guilty pleasure.
Daniel Duane lives and writes in San Francisco. He is the author of “Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.